The Science Gap: Why America Needs to Step Up to The Educational Challenge

Where will America find the resources to power itself in the coming years?  Not just the fuel, but the technology, the science?  Sadly, these too, may need to be imported.

It’s a quiet crisis , that we ignore at our own peril.

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D, is working to reinvigorate our nation’s scientific and technical curriculum to avoid a “shortfall in our national scientific and technical capabilities.”  As president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Jackson has her finger on the pulse of America’s current educational system.  She sees firsthand the preparedness of students coming in, and going out, of college.

In her online paper, Falling Short in Producing American Scientific and Technical Talent, hosted on the RPI website, she states:

The crisis stems from the gap between the nation’s growing need for scientists, engineers, and other technically skilled workers, and its production of them. As the generation educated in the 1950s and 1960s prepares to retire, our colleges and universities are not graduating enough scientific and technical talent to step into research laboratories, software and other design centers, refineries, defense installations, science policy offices, manufacturing shop floors and high-tech startups. 

So what can we do as a country?  Jackson posits that it will “require a national commitment to develop more of the talent of all our citizens, especially the under-represented majority — the women, minorities, and persons with disabilities who comprise a disproportionately small part of the nation’s science, engineering, and technology workforce.”  She speaks of developing an “Innovation Ecosystem” wherein government, industry, and educational institutions work together on solving the long-term problems of a finite planet.

She believes in starting kids early with cool science projects to get them hooked on the fun aspects of science and technology.  That’s one reason Rensselaer sponsors the “Nano Quest Challenge” with companies like GE.  Both the University and the Company have a vested interest in cultivating a promising new crop of science students.  Middle schoolers are invited to compete in the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) LEGO® League challenge, where each team must, according to their website:

…build and program a LEGO MINDSTORMS® robot to explore nanotechnology and the amazing solutions this newest frontier of science and technology can make possible.  

Rensselaer is among a number of leading scientific schools around the country that see value in seeding young minds with the possibilities of technology.  For one challenge, they collaborated with the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Nano Science & Technology and the Cornell University Nanobiotechnology Center to help shape a theme and challenge missions that include manipulating individual atoms, clothes that never get dirty, an elevator to outer space, and cures for disease.

Beyond the LEGO® challenge, Rensselaer – and many other colleges and universities – are working to make science more appealing to students while still in high school.  They offer symposia, lectures, hands-on workshops and even summer camps, where science and fun go hand-in-hand.  Among the colleges offering these summer programs are Stanford, UCLA, UCSD, Berkeley, Endicott, Caltech, and others.

One of the more interesting offerings is the Sally Ride Summer Camp for Girls as described on the education unlimited website:

Sally Ride Science Camps encourage girls’ interests in science by giving them hands-on science learning and activities in an environment that is designed to be supportive, enriching, and – most importantly – fun! Education Unlimited® has partnered with Sally Ride Science, founded by America’s first woman in space, to provide innovative science programs for girls entering grades 4 through 9. These unique overnight camps provide girls an opportunity to explore science, technology, and engineering while doing fun science experiments for kids on an actual college campus.

This clearly isn’t your father’s pre-calculus!  With fun and intriguing camps and programs, science and technology are hoping to shed their geeky image and become the new “cool!”  And with an insatiable demand for new engineers, scientist, and technicians, America holds great promise for the science and technology students of tomorrow.

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